The heat is the first thing to smack you in the face; it’s the unmistakable warmth and cloying dampness of a tropical island that regularly experiences humidity levels of 96 per cent or more. It is almost 9pm, yet our clothing – which has already endured an eleven-hour flight from Heathrow to Seoul and a further one-hour hop to Jeju Island – is dripping with sweat. Our Korean-speaking fixer politely decides to ignore the smell.
We’ve travelled the 5500 miles or so from the UK to the most southern point of South Korea in search of untapped waves, relaxed locals, and a culture that is yet to fully embrace the surf scene. In most respects, it’s your typical surf trip: travelling miles on a whim, with a promise that we’ll be presented with beautifully peeling waves that break on tropical shorelines and empty line-ups.
Some of that may be true, as our fixer friend, Mr Pete Park (clearly not his Korean name), explains that he chaperones plenty of film crews on the island but rarely sees westerners travel this far in search of surf – but why not? Jeju itself sits in the Korean Strait and is well-known for its beach resorts, volcanic landscapes, and relaxed atmosphere. The similarities with O’ahu – certainly in terms of scenery – are striking, and the East China Sea is consistently battered by typhoons and ocean storms that create regular swell throughout the summer months.
We’ve landed at the tail end of the season, but the forecast claims that a hurricane is brewing in the Sea of Japan. The conditions could be perfect for some early morning sessions. We pick up our hire car: an all-electric Kia Soul EV, as the eco-friendly island is currently on a mission to get rid of internal combustion engines entirely from its roads. It is not the most conventional surf wagon, but we point it towards Jungmun Beach – located on the very southern tip of the island – and make a beeline for some fried food, showers, and hotel beds. Jet lag is a bitch.
Tol Harubang. It means “stone grandfather” in Korean, and these rocky carvings are absolutely everywhere on Jeju. The humble looking fellas can be found on roundabouts, in front gardens, and outside shops. They’re supposed to bring good luck to the islanders.
Rub his nose and females will become mothers to a baby boy, pull his ear and you get a girl.
We pass several of the statues as we walk from our hotel room and through a maze of cobwebs and dangerous looking tropical spiders towards Jungmun Beach, which we’re told is the surfing epicentre of the island. It’s beautiful. An expansive half-crescent cove with a couple of large hotel complexes overlooking the ocean and a nice coral point, dubbed Duke Point, to the west. But it’s not exactly teeming with surfers.
There are a few foam boards dumped on the beach (which suffers from a fair amount of plastic pollution) but only a handful in the water. Tiny ripples peel across the surface. The swell is small, but this place has potential.
We explore further and stumble across a diminutive gravestone that is marked with the name of local surfer Tae-O-Kim who drowned at the coral point mentioned earlier. The small sepulchre claims that this man was among the first to introduce surfing to the island. Unfortunately, there isn’t anyone around to explain the story. It’s off-season, and the only other tourists around are Chinese. Some three million visitors flock from China every year (because of the fact they don’t require a visa) but it’s rare to see any of them carrying a surfboard.
Local knowledge is going to be key to scoring waves on this trip, so we employ a spot of Wavelength charm on Facebook and soon get a reply back from the owner of a surf bar in Jeju City. It’s about an hour’s drive (make that three if you have to constantly stop to charge your electric car) from all of the obvious surf spots on the south coast, but we make the journey to see if we can uncover more.
The sun is setting as we arrive, and Jeju City fails to disappoint. Huge neon signs hang from buildings, with tiny alleyways that secrete all sorts of hidden bars and cafes, while the smell of mouth-watering Korean barbecue floods from the many sweltering establishments.
The Goofy Foot Bar is located on University Street and is only really noticeable thanks to a half-broken surfboard hanging outside. Climb down the tight stairwell and it’s another story. The bar is packed with craft ales, pub games litter the place, and 90s surf films play on a large projector. Owner and proprietor, Heo-Yong-Kwon, immediately offers to brew up a mean black coffee for his slightly haggard looking friends.
“Why have you got Andy Irons on the big screen?” I ask Yong-Kwon as he pours the syrupy coffee. “Fan of the old school surf films?”
“These were the first real surf films we saw,” he answers, via our intrepid interpreter Mr Park. “Surfing was only really introduced to Jeju in the early 1990s. You can easily trace it back to some of the first guys who brought boards over from Japan. I guess we’re stuck in a bit of a time warp here.”
That explains a lot. It elucidates as to why there is the distinct lack of surf shops on the island. It justifies the sole surf-hire shack on Jungmun Beach, and goes some way to explain why the waves go largely uncontested in these parts.
Yong-Kwon continues: “We have so many spots on the island but everyone still goes to Jungmun. It can be full of Chinese tourists in the summer, but if you’re willing to drive around a bit, you can find some really nice longboard waves with only a few guys out.”
The coffee is doing its bit to ease the fog of jetlag in our brains, and Heo-Yong-Kwon perks us up with news of swell on its way in the morning. The typhoon is supposedly sending chunky waves to Jeju as we speak, but it will also blow a gale. He suggests getting up early and checking out Jungmun before trying some other, lesser-known spots.
That gives us plenty of time to check out Jeju City, which means diving into the first barbecue place we can find, ordering an unhealthy amount of spicy chicken, and slapping it on the red-hot grill in front of us. The food is accompanied by lots of little plates and bowls that contain pickled veg – or Kimchi – which has the ability to blow your head off thanks to the overly liberal smearing of chilli. There are nettle leaves, big chunks of lettuce, and bowls of stuff covered in fiery substances. Our guide Mr Park explains that Korean culture is all about sharing, so we should always take food when offered. He also insists on filling our beer glasses up as soon as they are empty, something we later realise is also custom (and not a bad one at that).
We find that trying to out-drink a South Korean is a bad idea, especially when the soju comes out to play. It’s a potent rice wine that is typically guzzled down neat, or you can throw it in a beer to turbocharge your drink. These boys sure know how to get wasted.
It’s around 5.30am. The sun hasn’t even risen, but the phone in my room is ringing off the hook. Lewis is awake next door, and he’s frothing after a quick glance off his balcony. Jungmun is starting to work, and a few dedicated guys are already waxing boards and piling into the sea. The bay is producing some long, peeling rights, while the shallow reef point is kicking up smaller but punchier lefts. There’s a small breeze, which means the sets aren’t perfect, but the water is warm, and the surf is good.
Bar-owner Heo-Yong-Kwon’s words about this island’s surfing history roll around my mind as I watch yet another longboarder attempt to trim his line, only to topple off his board in fits of laughter. This lot have only been surfing for a few years, but they’re having ludicrous amounts of fun. Not one wave is fiercely contested; the Jeju crew seem happy to drop in on each other, often giving a gentle shove to anyone who crosses paths. Every wave is a party wave. There’s plenty of banter, and nobody seems to be taking anything seriously.
The guys up at the shallower Duke Point appear to be more experienced. Jeju surf legend, Tae-O-Kim, died there after all, but the vibe is still ridiculously relaxed. It’s pure fun, and those in the water seem grateful for some decent waves and a lack of tourist foamies flying around.
We’d love to stay longer, but word has spread of our visit, and we’ve got a meeting with one of Jeju’s most experienced surfers Jongwoo-Lee who also happens to own the cool Stone Cafe in the Seo-Soo-Kkak region of Jeju.
The Sabu of Surfing
The Stone Cafe is located about 45 minutes east of Jungmun in a petrol car (try two-hours if you have to keep charging the sodding thing), and the area has a much more industrial feel compared with the well-groomed beach resorts in the south. Jongwoo-Lee offers us another cup of rocket-fuel coffee as we settle down to talk about surfing on the island. He has been a fan of the sport for most of his life, having since qualified as a surf instructor in order to teach the next generation of local groms.
“Kim-Jung-Nam is considered the master of surfing on the island,” Jongwoo-Lee explains. “He’s the Sabu. He brought boards over from Japan and was one of the first guys to get in the water here. Kim-Jung-Nam and Tae-O-Kim were true pioneers. Unfortunately, Tae-O-Kim proved that the sport could be very dangerous.
“We were just kids at the time, and we had some cheap, old bodyboards that we used to mess around on. But Kim-Jung-Nam demanded we stand up and surf. He gave me my first ever surfboard, which still hangs on my wall next door.”
According to Jongwoo-Lee, the next generation of Jeju surfers is slowly coming up through the ranks thanks to a generous donation of boards and sponsorship opportunities by Japanese brand Murasaki Sports. Its owner is from Korean/Japanese descent and has been sending used pro boards to the island for a few years, as well as funding local competitions and events to get the next generation involved.
We nurse our drinks and look out of the expansive glass windows. It turns out that the typhoon that delivered some sweet waves this morning is rapidly turning into a beast. The TV plays a South Korean news report that suggests Typhoon Chaba – it now has an official name – could batter Jeju Island in the coming hours, however Jongwoo-Lee is keen to show off his skills. He grabs his Firewire shortboard and heads for a black-sand beach spot at the end of his road.
There’s something a bit post-apocalyptical about the scene. The skies are grey, the wind is howling, and enormous concrete coastal defences jut out into the sea. A backdrop of factories and run-down cabins frame the dumping beach break that Jongwoo-Lee is wrestling with. It’s a far cry from the paradisiacal scenes of this morning, but with typhoon waves typically comes destruction. Time to make an exit.
We make quick a detour to Hado Beach during our mad dash to the airport, a spot on the north east of the volcanic island that has major potential. Unfortunately, the wind is howling at this point, and we are forced into the first real surf shop we’ve seen on the trip in search of shelter. The streets are practically empty, and big, windy rollers continue to march into Hado Bay. With a bit of imagination, this could easily be as fun as some of the mellowest spots in Hawaii, but the weather is just wrong.
That’s the thing about exploring a new destination: you just begin to dial in to a spot, and then it’s time to leave. Jeju Island could be the provider of beautiful, friendly, un-crowded surf sessions if you’re willing to do the research and make the trip, but, for now, we just have to envisage hanging our toes over a nine-footer as the sun beats off white sands. We’ve got a plane to catch, and it’s one of the last leaving the island.
Typhoon Chaba has a bone to pick with Jeju Island, and we don’t want to be party to the aftermath.
How to get there
Direct flights to Jeju Island are out of the question, although it’s easy enough to get to Seoul from London Heathrow non-stop. Korean Air is the national carrier with flights starting at around £669 for a round-trip, but British Airways also run a regular service. Just be prepared to part with more cash.
Penny-pinchers could try KLM, who offer return flights to Seoul for around £450 with a stop in Amsterdam (we could think of worse places) or China Eastern airways with a stopover in Shanghai. Once in Seoul, you’ll have to transfer from Incheon International Airport to Gimpo, which is home to the majority of internal flights in South Korea. The transfer takes about 45 minutes by cab and costs around £35, or you can take a bus for less.
There are over 100 flights per day from Seoul to Jeju, and they can cost as little as £50 return in the pumping summer months. The flight is only an hour, so it’s not too much of a slog after the 12-hour flight from the UK. Alternatively, break up the trip to Indonesia with a week or so in Jeju. It’s possible to fly directly to Bali Denpasar from Incheon in the summer months, which takes around seven-hours.
Of course, it’s worth checking with all airlines about the cost of packing a board, but we found one or two places to rent on Jeju. Just don’t expect the equipment to be very good.
What to do if it’s flat
The island is an absolute stunner, perfect for anyone keen on photographing the lush tropical landscape and volcanic scenery, and is also home to over 70 museums. There’s the Teddy Bear Museum, the Museum of Hello Kitty, and even a place dedicated to the production of tangerines. The island exports 600,000 tonnes of the orange fruit every year, so it’s kinda justified.
We also ‘stumbled’ across a place called Love Land, which is basically a giant park that’s filled with enormous cock sculptures and weird vagina installations. It’s well worth a look, even if you only come away with a hilarious pic of a cock and balls.
The area around Jungmun has the most tourist-related stuff so expect to stumble across a Starbucks or two, but development has been kept to a minimum. The entire island is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so expect plenty of nature walks and scary-looking wildlife. Jeju City is the place to go if you’re looking for some action. There’s a surfeit of bars, restaurants and nightclubs tucked down the many small streets, but it’s worth taking some local knowledge along with you.
The language barrier can be a little intimidating, but the locals will do all they can to help. They’re extremely friendly, if a little shy and reserved at times.
Words: Leon Poultney
This article was originally published in Wavelength issue 221. Be the first to get our articles in print and online by subscribing here.